"Miracle on 52nd Street"

That’s what the marketing team behind the struggling revival of Ragtime has called it. What a whirlwind couple of days its been for the cast and crew at the Neil Simon Theatre. It’s not been an easy ride for this music, an ambitious, heart-on-its-sleeve tapestry of American life in the early years of the 20th century. Starting from its original New York production which was met with mixed notices, the Disney broom across the street sweeping up the major Tonys and buzz and the financial collapse of the show’s producer Garth Drabinsky. Still that original run managed to eke out 834 performances in spite of its setbacks.

After a sold out run at the Kennedy Center, a new production of the musical moved to Broadway this fall where it was met with mostly positive notices, though there was that wholly ambiguous entry from the NY Times (if a review can be simultaneously construed as positive, mixed and negative, then that critic has not done his job… eh, Mr. Brantley?) as well as some reservations about the musical’s ambitions. In spite of some very good notices and word of mouth, Ragtime stayed mostly under the radar. The numbers don’t lie, and during one of the most prosperous periods on Broadway – the holiday season – the show failed to meet expectations and ignite at the box office.

Michael Riedel – that Broadway vulture you love to hate and hate to love – first mentioned word of a 1/3 closing for the revival back in early December. The viral effect on the internet was astounding, to whirls of posted closing notices and denials and rebuttals, etc. I’ve seen reports of the show closing on 12/13, 12/20, 1/3, and 1/17. Kevin McCollum, lead producer, was adamant in leading the charge against the viral campaign. But on Monday, the Broadway community elicited a collective “Hmmm…” when the initial rumor printed by Riedel happened to be true.

Something very interesting has happened in the 48 hours since the show announced its closing on 1/3 – ticket sales have skyrocketed. The Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinee performances were SRO, with the box office forced to send people away. In light of the sparked interest in the show, it was announced that there was a one week reprieve: the musical is now closing on 1/10 instead, bringing it to a run of 65 performances. My buddy Chris Caggiano asks “Start of a trend or a dead-cat bounce?” I guess we shall see..

Now, the Ragtime team has come up with the term “Miracle on 52nd Street” to describe the increased audience interest in the show. It’s a shame that it took a one-week closing notice to drum up the interest the show needed from its very first week of performances. Excitement levels and buzz are now on the rise, when it would seem that it’s too little, too late. It brings me back to another show that suffered a much more severe fate this season: Brighton Beach Memoirs, which folded after one week; a result of what appears to have been poor producing and marketing. I find it interesting that the lead producer on that revival, Emanuel Azenberg, is also a lead producer on this production of Ragtime.

Granted, it’s a small miracle, as the theatre has been booked by an upcoming show (which is not Fences, according to the show’s sources) and continued extensions seem highly unlikely, but it’s nice to see that the show is going to go out with some flair. This has been a season of the “major star.” The only guaranteed box office has been those shows with the star quality to match it, in spite of reception. For evidence, look to the artistically bankrupt Bye Bye Birdie from Roundabout that has done exceptionally well in the face of some of the worst reviews I’ve ever read, or the underwhelming revival of A Little Night Music at the Walter Kerr, which boasts one of the most beautiful movie stars in the world. Meanwhile the more artistically successful, if commercially risky revivals of Finian’s Rainbow and Ragtime are left in the dust. Finian’s has been more fortunate, as it is the best reviewed Broadway show of the fall, but it still faces an uphill climb.

Last year around this time, there was the usual early January closings. However most of those were older shows that had managed to run for quite some time. This is a bit different, as many of the shows closing on 1/3 are shows that have opened more recently, with the lovely Superior Donuts finding itself shuttering after a three month run. But I’m all about rooting for a show that’s good, but I find I’m especially fond of these underdogs.